THE OFFICIAL ASPIRING FILMMAKER’S CHECKLIST MANIFESTO
It’s finally time to take your project to market. You’ve devoted months — perhaps even years — to writing your spec screenplay or creating your short film or web series. Your investment in time, money and emotional capital is substantial. The stakes are equally enormous. Succeed, and your life could change forever. Fail, and all your efforts could all come to naught.
You don’t want to screw this up.
You want to make the best possible first impression.
You want to be recognized as a professional.
Which is why you need The Checklist.
The Checklist is a breakdown of everything you need to do to make your presentation as impactful as possible. It covers the “look and feel” of your screenplay or short film as well as the tools you use to sell it. The Checklist can’t guarantee your work will be received positively. There are enumerable factors beyond your control that can affect how an agent, manager or producer renders judgment at any given moment. But it can ensure that you have optimized the elements that are under your control, that you’ve truly given it your best shot.
And you do always want to give it your best shot.
Here, then, is The Checklist for taking any unsolicited project — be it a screenplay, TV or web series concept, film project proposal or finished short/indie film — into the Hollywood marketplace:
If You’re a Screenwriter
• Check Your Length. Your spec screenplay should be no shorter than 100 pages, no longer than 120.
• Format Correctly. Your script should be formatted in accordance with current industry standards. (If you wrote it using Final Draft or Movie Magic, this should be automatic.) In addition, check that:
o Page breaks occur between description or dialogue paragraphs. Sentences should never jump from page to page.
o (CONT’D)s in dialogue slugs are minimized. Only use them with dialogue is actually continuing, not when resuming it after beats of physical action.
o Scene slugs are all written from biggest-to-smallest (e.g., EXT. LOS ANGELES – WILSHIRE BLVD. – STREET CORNER – DAY)
o DAY and NIGHT designations used only at the beginning of sequences or when jumping to remote locations.
o INT. and EXT. designations are used only to establish master locations and not when merely changing angles within a location.
o UPPERCASE treatment within description is used only when introducing characters and for sound cues.
• Detail. Be sure your descriptions and references are as specific as possible. (e.g., Don’t say “car,” say “sports car” or, better yet, “2016 Chevy Corvette.”) Being explicit with your writing helps make your writing more vivid and engaging.
• Spellcheck. Use your software’s Spellcheck function to fix any misspelled words, improper punctuation or typographical errors.
• Read the Script Aloud. A verbal read-though can reveal errors that the Spellcheck function may have missed, such as incorrect articles, missing words, wrong character names, duplicated descriptions, etc. If a reader stops reading our script because of typographical errors, you’ve blown it.
• Have Your Screenplay Read by a Professional. To know how an industry insider is likely to react to your script, have it read by one. Someone you trust. Who will be honest with you. (No, your mother doesn’t count, even if she’s a studio executive.) If you don’t know anyone in The Industry who can read your script, there are professional script analysis services that can serve this function. Vet them carefully to determine their reputation and record of success.
• Take Feedback Seriously. If a professional gives you script notes, listen. If you need to make changes, make them. And then recheck your script for spelling errors, typos, etc.
If You’re a Filmmaker
• Polish. If you’re presenting a finished film — regardless of length — it must be a polished as your budget allows. While some aspects of film are immutable — such as your actors’ performances — there are other elements that remain in your control long after your film has wrapped, particularly such post-production details as editing, color balance, sound mixing, scoring, etc. What you’re selling may never be “perfect,” but you damned well better make sure it’s as perfect as you can make it now.
• Create a Presentation Platform. To facilitate viewing, post your film online (You may or may not require password access) and make sure the playback function actually works.
Finally, Whether You’re a Writer or a Filmmaker
• Create a Compelling Log Line. Boiling the description of your film, TV series or screenplay down to just one or two sentences can be the most challenging part of the entire creative enterprise. But it’s absolutely essential to the sales process. An effective log line contains three essential elements:
o A hero with a problem he/she can’t just walk away from (i.e., stakes)
o A “Wow Factor,” which is an element that is original, clever, compelling, exciting, cool, etc. It’s your marketing hook. (e.g., Jurassic Park’s dinosaur theme park-run-amok.)
o An element of irony, meaning that the hero’s problem is in some way antithetical to what this person would normally expect — or be expected — to face in the normal course of life.
Having a clear, powerful log line proves that you see your story clearly. It also helps your buyer see the story clearly — and then clearly explain the story to others, which is usually an essential part of the sale process.
• Write a Compelling Synopsis. Hollywood professionals have to read a lot. And they usually hate reading. A lot. Which is why they like things short, sweet, and to-the-point. Before committing themselves — or their assistants — to the time necessary to actually watch a film or read a screenplay, they often prefer to first review and judge the project in a much shorter, concentrated form: the synopsis. This is a one- or two-page-long telling of the story in a complete, albeit highly abbreviated form. Like the full version, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. (Yes, reveal the ending.) It’s populated by distinct characters who participate in a series of goal-specific conflicts, actions, and reactions that build to a (hopefully) thrilling climax and satisfying resolution. Written in present tense, it should also focus on the key set-pieces and action sequences that make your movie memorable. It should contain the “Wow Factor” that makes your project unique and marketable. And like your finished product, it also should be polished and typo-free. You may not always need a synopsis, but if you’re asked for one, it really helps to have one handy.
• Prepare a List of Casting Suggestions. An agent, manager, or producer may ask who you see playing specific roles. (This can help them decide whom to approach.) The first trick here is to have a list of five or six possible candidates for each major character. Never limit your suggestions to just one or two actors, especially if said actors are super-popular (and thus probably either too expensive or unavailable), or relative unknowns (in which case they add no value to the project). The second trick is to keep the list to yourself and only offer it upon specific request. Volunteering casting suggestions makes you look amateurish and naïve.
• Copyright Your Work and Register it with the WGA. Before taking your project to market, you want to make sure you are legally protected. Register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office and with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and/or Director’s Guild of America (DGA). Note that even these registrations can’t prevent other people from “stealing” your ideas or even your script. But should you need to sue, they will give you ample ammunition to prove your authorship and when you created the work in question. (Note: Outright plagiarism is extremely rare in Hollywood. But even on the rare chance it does occur, it’s good to have ammunition.)
• Build a Website. Today, a website is the equivalent of a calling card. You don’t go to a business meeting without having one. If your intention is to acquire an agent or manager, then a site that promotes you as an individual is appropriate. The site should include information on your background, education/training, previous projects (if any), awards (if any), work samples, contact information, and any other information a professional representative is likely to find relevant. If you’re pitching a specific project, such as a screenplay, TV series concept, short film or finished independently produced feature, then the site should focus on the particulars of your story, including premise, characters, cast (if already produced), narrative, previous critical response (if any), etc. Remember, a public website is just that — public — so don’t include any private or proprietary information you don’t want to share with the world at large. And if any of your printed materials or website content contains links to other websites (such as YouTube postings), make sure the links actually work! There’s no rookie mistake quite as embarrassing as presenting a would-be representative or buyer with a broken link
• Create a Valid, Vetted Marketing List. Determine in advance who you are going to market to — and why. Research your targets fully to understand their history, their needs, and how what you’re selling meets their normal business needs. Make sure the contact information you have — including email addresses, phone numbers and mailing addresses — is current and valid.
• Prepare a Query Email. Whether you are making a “cold” inquiry or acting on a personal reference, you need an email in which you introduce yourself and explain what it is you want from the person you’re contacting. If you are seeking personal representation, say so. If you have a project to pitch, give the form (TV, film, web series, etc.), the genre and the log line. The email needs to be short and punchy. No more than three or four paragraphs. If possible, open with a personal reference. For example, if writing to a producer, congratulate him/her on the success of a recent film or simply express your pleasure in their recent work. And, as with all your written materials, make sure your query letter is typo-free!
• Follow-Up. If, after six weeks, you don’t get a response from your query letter or email, feel free to send a follow-up message. This message should only request confirmation that the first query letter or email was received and perhaps reiterate your log line. Do not ask when you can expect a reply. If they are interested, they will let you know. If not, you may never hear back. No response is a response in Hollywood.
• Create a Paper Trail. Keep careful, meticulous records of every email exchange and subsequent meeting you have. Put everything in writing. Such records can prove invaluable when it comes to contract details, credits or, God forbid, lawsuits.
As the ancient Roman Senator Lucius Seneca is purported to have said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” When selling your screen, TV or web project, be prepared — and good luck! – Allen B. Ury